Q+A with U of T’s Eden Hataley about Operation Sweep the Creek

Eden Hataley is a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto studying plastic litter policy and management. She is currently leading an initiative called Operation Sweep the Creek, a project of the U of T Trash Team. The U of T Trash Team is a science-based community outreach group that works to increase waste literacy in the community while reducing plastic litter in the environment.  

What is Operation Sweep the Creek, and what are the motivations and goals behind the initiative?   

Operation Sweep the Creek is a multi-year, collaborative initiative designed to address the problem of accidental resin pellet loss from plastic manufacturing, distribution, and recycling facilities. The initiative was started in response to the local contamination of resin pellets on Toronto’s waterfront and the desire by both governments and industry to prevent accidental loss. Our team of collaborators hopes that Operation Sweep the Creek will help the plastics industry achieve zero resin pellet loss and ultimately contribute to a healthier environment.  

You mention collaborators. Who is involved in Operation Sweep the Creek, and what role does each partner play?  

Operation Sweep the Creek is being run in collaboration with the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada (CIAC) Plastics Division, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks (MECP), and Enviropod International. As I mentioned, the initiative is being led by the U of T Trash Team, but the CIAC Plastics Division, the Ontario MECP, and Enviropod International all have essential supporting roles. For example, through their member network, the CIAC Plastics Division connects our researchers with companies interested in getting involved in the initiative. On the other hand, the Ontario MECP supports our research efforts in the field, and Enviropod International is the maker of an on-site resin pellet containment system called the Enviropod LittaTrap, which we worked with in Phase 2 of the initiative and will continue to work with in Phase 3.   

Ontario is a focus area for the initiative. Why Ontario? 

The U of T Trash Team was founded in collaboration with the Rochman Lab, part of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto in downtown Toronto, Ontario. So, Ontario is where we are located. But it is also a good place to research accidental resin pellet loss. The Canadian plastics industry is concentrated in Ontario, and, as a result, research has documented the presence of resin pellets in tributaries and on shorelines in the Great Lakes region.       

Can you give us a brief history of Operation Sweep the Creek? 

Operation Sweep the Creek is a multi-year initiative now entering its third phase. The initiative began in the summer of 2019 with Phase 1, which wrapped up in 2020 with this publication. Phase 2 started in early 2020 and also lasted about a year, wrapping up in 2021 with this publication. Phase 3 is getting off the ground this summer and will be finished in the fall of 2023. 

Can you tell us a bit about each phase? How has the initiative progressed, and are there any interesting findings you would like to share? 

In Phase 1 of Operation Sweep the Creek, our team looked for resin pellets in Mimico Creek – a stream that flows through parts of Brampton, Mississauga, and Toronto and drains into Lake Ontario. We found resin pellets in the creek, with an increase in the number of pellets during rainstorm events. From this, we learned that resin pellets are most likely to be swept off the land and into the stormwater system during rainstorm events, whereby they can be directly released into the local waterway.

Harnessed with this information, in Phase 2 of Operation Sweep the Creek, our team worked with one plastic packaging manufacturer in Etobicoke to install five Enviropod LittaTraps on their property. As I mentioned, the Enviropod LittaTrap is a resin pellet containment system. It is a low-cost and low-maintenance mesh basket designed to sit inside stormwater drains and capture resin pellets carried by precipitation, preventing them from entering the stormwater system. These five Enviropod LittaTraps successfully captured nearly 35,000 resin pellets over 289 days. This showed that stormwater drain inserts, like Enviropod’s LittaTrap, are an effective and practical solution for preventing resin pellet loss at the source. 

What is the plan for the third phase of Operation Sweep the Creek? Why is this phase important, and what do you hope to achieve? 

Now that we know the Enviropod LittaTrap is an effective and practical solution for preventing resin pellet loss at the facility scale, our next step is to test its impact at a larger scale – the watershed scale. We are doing this in Phase 3 of Operation Sweep the Creek. At the end of this summer, we will install multiple Enviropod LittaTraps at several plastics-related companies situated upstream in the Humber River watershed. Over the next year, we will count how many resin pellets we capture on-site, but we will also look for resin pellets downstream in the Humber River both before and after we install the resin pellet containment systems. Our goal is to determine if we can measure a decrease in the number of resin pellets in the Humber River after installation compared to before installation. In the end, Phase 3 has the potential to show that stormwater drain inserts work to reduce accidental resin pellet loss from different types of companies across the plastic supply chain and that their impact is felt downstream in the watershed. These two pieces of information are necessary for moving ahead with this type of solution on an even larger scale, like across the entire province.        

How can our members get involved if interested? How would it benefit them? 

If a company is interested in becoming an Operation Sweep the Creek facility partner, they can email me directly at [email protected] to see if they are eligible. Facility partners will have Enviropod LittaTraps installed on their property at the end of the summer. We will pay for these traps and facilitate installation, and after Phase 3 is finished, each company is welcome to keep and continue using their Enviropod LittaTraps at no cost. In the end, being a part of Operation Sweep the Creek is a chance for CIAC members to demonstrate environmental stewardship and increase the sustainability of their operations while helping our province and their industry achieve zero resin pellet loss.